The Grape

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


I shall sing of Dionysus, the son of renowned Semele, who appeared as a man in the first bloom of youth on a projecting stretch of shore by the sea that bears no harvest. His hair, beautiful and dark, flowed thickly about his head, and he wore on his strong shoulders a purple cloak.

Homeric Hymn to Dionysus

 Amongst the Greeks, many were suspicious of this new god. They distrusted his dark womanly ringlets and his exotic Asian garb. But his influence grew like the tendrils of the grapevine, spreading from the east along the rocky hillsides of Hellas. Pruned back here and there, the vine, like the god, flourished and, finding a mostly friendly soil, established itself as a part of the landscape, clinging and twining and capturing people's minds. They seemed to have sensed in its growth what the ancient Sumerians identified as gestin, the Tree of Life. They must have intuited this, and in their dreams they might have known that on the other side of the world tribal people in an undiscovered land believed that before the flood men had emerged from an underworld village by climbing up the branches of a grapevine extended from the world above. Stretching its enquiring tendrils between worlds and bearing fruit in abundance, the grape succoured man, giving him joy and strength and firing his imagination.

  In it he sensed the flow of deathless vigour, the immortality of the gods. Gilgamesh, in an epic quest recorded four millennia ago, was allowed to enter the domain of the sun by the reluctant giant scorpion men. After a day of travelling, he came to a vineyard belonging to the maid Siduri, a divine tavern-keeper goddess,whose power it was to impart the 'noble and precious' fluid of eternal life extracted from the vine-stock of the Tree of Life. Because he was a mortal, Gilgamesh was not allowed to partake of the celestial drink and had to carry on unaided in his quest. But the symbolism in the epic bore a faithful resemblance to the widespread notion which identified immortality with the vine. At the tomb of Sennufer in Egypt the deceased was laid to rest for all eternity under a vine-bower painted on the ceiling, and it was thought in the Middle East generally that to dream of the grape foretold a very long life. Even at Ilium's gates Achilles defended his partial mortality with a shield decorated with a vineyard scene in which the harvest was proceeding.

 In the winter, austere and barren, the promise of renewed life is stored within seemingly lifeless wood. Owing to this the grape was associated with resurrection, for there is no plant more hopelessly but illusively dead in appearance during the months of its dormancy. Wishing to ensure the vigorous rebirth of their kindred, Egyptians of the First Dynasty covered their interred corpses with grapes, anticipating the painted ceilings and sculpted cluster decorations that were to come. The association between the fruit and the capacity to be reborn persisted long after the great dynasties had faded, and was brought vividly to life in the words attributed to Jesus, who proclaimed:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit shall be taken away; and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. . . .

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

John 15: 1-4

  The book of Genesis speaks of the blood of the grape, and in the New Testament the blood of Christ shed on the cross is associated with sacrificial wine bearing within it the essential power of resurrection and ultimate immortality. Jesus, in affirming his oneness with the Father, spoke on behalf of every human's heritage, thus likening each to a vine from which the non-bearing branches "shall be taken away". This would suggest that it is man's rightful function to bring forth in his nature the fruits of sacrifice, the blood of which flows as life-giving sap from the Christos within.

 The symbol of the grape is transformed almost imperceptibly into that of wine, with the fruit being more related to the idea of fertility at many levels and rebirth, and the wine to sacrifice. There is, however, much confusion here, for in the Christian tradition the sacrificial Lamb of God is portrayed with thorns and bunches of grapes, whilst wine is prescribed by Paul as a strengthener and healer. The interlacing of these meanings goes back to the very beginnings of viticulture and the subsequent discovery of wine-making. The progression from grape to wine can be traced even in the names and symbolic associations of many deities of the ancient world. The early Sumerians who worshipped the goddess Ama-gestin ('Mother Vine-Stock') later paid homage to Pa-gestin-dug ('Good Vine-Stock'), a god whose wife's name was Nin-kasi ('the Lady of the Inebriating Fruit')- The offspring of this goddess had names signifying varying states of drunkenness such as 'He of Frightening Speech', 'He of Lucid Speech', 'Abider in Mirth' and 'The Braggart'. As civilization grew in its complexity, leaving the simple hunters and gatherers behind, the grape increasingly became merely the raw material of the intoxicating drink, an unforeseen culmination of the development of the vine through millions of years.

 As a distinctive flora, the grapevine can be traced back to Eocene times when, after the division of the Old World and the New at the Bering Straits, there developed an American and Eurasian race. During this epoch there gradually evolved changes away from the primitive labruscoid (wild) form towards the modern viniferae, but it was not until the Holocene (about twelve thousand years ago) that the genus Vitis, comprising two sub-genera and about fifty species, emerged. In the New World people gathered the bunches of small sweet fruit and ate them fresh or mixed in pemmican. Perhaps as early as the beginning of the agricultural revolution, people in the Old World domesticated the vine and encouraged certain characteristics to emerge. In their wild state most grapevines tend to have unisexual flowers, thus ensuring that fruit will mature only where male and female plants are in close proximity to one another. There were, however, some original hermaphrodites amongst these wild plants and the first domesticators of the vine must have seen that these produced fruit more regularly and abundantly than the unisexual plants. Thus, they slowly selected out the reliable bearers until most domestic vines had hermaphroditic flowers and began to produce larger and thicker clusters of fruit. No vines grew south of the equator in those days, nor did the early farmers attempt to transplant them thither.

 It is thought that the discovery of wine must have taken place somewhere in Caucasia, from whence it spread eastward and to the south. In the fifth century B.C. Herodotus reported that the Babylonians were still importing their wine from the country of the Armenians, but the wine-making art had been known in Mesopotamia at least fifteen hundred years before them. In Egypt vines were planted along the Nile, where they were trellised and used as pergolas. After harvesting, the grapes were pressed by foot and the juice was filtered and put into earthenware jars that were pointed at the bottom and sealed with clay. An Egyptian source speaks of two-hundred-year-old wine, but in spite of the large domestic production, it was imported from Crete and the Middle East. In Chaldea on the Caucasian border there were great cellars, each capable of holding up to two hundred and twenty-five thousand litres of wine, which fed much of this trade, and by 1400 B.C. the Hittites introduced price controls establishing wine as an economic index all over the eastern Mediterranean world.

 Religions in this part of the world began, more and more, to reflect the growing importance of wine. The etymological history of names of the grapevine and of wine illustrates the shift of emphasis. In Mesopotamia the Sumerian word gestin described the vine. The same cuneiform was used for the Akkadian word karanu, meaning 'vine' or the 'fruit of the vine'. Only later did the word inu, derived from the Canaanite yen, gain usage amongst these people and it clearly indicated wine. The root of this word yine or yainu appeared around 1400 B.C. amongst the Ugarite people and again amongst the Hittites of the same period as wiyanas. It is not difficult to trace this to the Linear B script from Crete, which word became the direct ancestor of the Greek οινος (oinos), the masculine term for wine, and οινι (oini), the feminine term for the vine. Increasingly, kings and priests asserted that wine was the drink of the gods, who gave it as a gift to men and would accept it as a proper sacrifice to themselves. Closely associated with the gods and often imported at great expense, wine was mostly available to the rich and became associated with class as well as ritual usage. Whilst its use was regarded as normal by the Sufis, the Essenes and the people amongst whom Jesus moved, it nonetheless tended to be kept in the cellars of the well-to-do, whilst common people met in bars and partook, in rowdier circumstances, of lesser brews.

 What led to this vast proliferation of the vine was the discovery that yeasts present in the bloom on the skins of grapes allowed fermentation to take place. Enzymes produced by the yeast break down starches into sugars and sugars into alcohol. Just a very few of these enzymes will cause a fundamental change in large quantities of the material being processed, causing it to bubble and foam with the formation of carbon dioxide. The yeast grows in the sugary solution of the grapes in the absence of air, a condition Pasteur called "la vie sans air". The ethyl alcohol that they produce takes its name from the Arabic al kuhl or kohl, which refers to the 'very fine powder' used as a cosmetic eye-shadow. They applied the term specifically to ethyl alcohol to indicate a 'finely divided spirit', which Muhammad promptly proscribed for all Muslims, directing their attention to fresh grapes and raisins instead. In the sixteenth century Paracelsus called the most subtle part of anything alcool vini, and in the nineteenth century the word 'alcohol' by itself came to describe spirits in general. The limiting term 'ethyl' means that this particular form of alcohol is convertible to ether and, like ether, is a depressant drug which 'muffles the mind'. The higher, more complex functions of the brain are affected first; judgement, self-criticism and inhibitions are depressed. This causes an excitement which is then followed by a depression of the more automatic functions, eventually (if enough is consumed) affecting the vital centres of the body.

 In its stricter ritual use the consumption of wine was usually controlled. It was a symbol of cleansing and binding one back through Holy Communion to the Christian faith from early times, and it constituted an integral part of offerings for libation in the Middle East. But the heavy injunctions against its overconsumption suggest that there were those who never understood the wisdom of moderation or abstinence. A very strict injunction in the Laws of Hammurabi forbade any temple priestess to operate a winehouse or even appear in one. That immorality was associated with such places is evidenced in the fact that the contravention of this law was punishable by death. Though viticulture was extensively practised in the land of the Philistines, where the biblical Samson was born, the Lord ordered him to abstain from drinking any wine. As a Nazarite, Samson was bound by his vow not to touch it, as was John the Baptist, whose birth was heralded with the commandment of his abstinence. The book of Proverbs echoes this admonition in the verse:

Look not thou upon the wine when it is red,
When it giveth his colour in the cup,
When it moveth itself aright.
At last it biteth like a serpent,
And stingeth like an adder.

Proverbs 23:31-32

 As part of the rituals accompanying the Greek symposiums in the time of Socrates, libations were offered to the gods and members followed a 'Leader of the Drinking', consuming wine diluted with three parts of water. Guests occasionally challenged each other to quaff jugs of wine, but the drinking was generally done in a specific order, left to right around the table. Cups were held in a prescribed manner whilst songs were sung, riddles were fired to and fro and daring statements were made, challenged and defended, accompanied by much ingeniousness and witty repartee. Xenophon described a symposium where Socrates praised wine but cautioned moderation, saying they should "moisten the spirit" rather than be made powerless by it. After a night of such drinking described in Plato's famous dialogue, Socrates, having put his interlocutors to sleep, went at dawn to the Lyceum to wash and spent his day as he would have any other before retiring to his home in the evening. In the views put forth during the symposium, the depth of wisdom of Socrates is contrasted sharply with the shallowness of Alcibiades, whose drunken lack of moderation symbolizes the level of his condition as well as his argument.

 Dionysus, the god of the vine, came with the vine itself from the East. He was the counterpart of the Egyptian Osiris and bore a resemblance to other gods who came to earth in order to be sacrificed. Like Orpheus, Dionysus was torn asunder whilst yet a youth and myth tells that from the ashes of his burnt parts the grapevine arose. In his first epiphany he was the son of Zeus and Demeter. He was the god who was meant to succeed Zeus as the Fifth Ruler of the Universe, and his untimely death wrought by the Titans enraged his father mightily. In his second epiphany the mother of Dionysus was the mortal, Semele, who had asked to be visited by Zeus in person. As lightning, he came and blasted her, but the unborn child, being immortal, was taken from her womb by Zeus and put into his own thigh, where gestation took place. In this birth Dionysus came amongst the 'earth-born' to be harvested, pressed and crushed, but first to conquer all of Asia and Hellas, a progression beautifully depicted in Gilbert Murray's translation of the Bacchae of Euripides:

Behold, God's son is come into this land
Of Thebes, even I Dionysus, whom the brand
Of Heaven's hot splendour lit to life, when she
Who bore me, Cadmus' daughter, Semele,
Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,
I walk again by Dirce's streams and scan
Ismenus' shore. There by the castle side
I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning's Bride.
The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great
Faint wreaths of fire undying - as the Hate
Dies not, that Hera held for Semele.
Aye, Cadmus hath done well; in purity
He keeps this place apart, inviolate,
His daughter's sanctuary; and I have set
My green clustered vines to robe it round.
Far now behind me lies the golden ground
Of Lydian and Phrygian; far away
The wide hot plain where Persian sunbeams play,
The Bactrian war-holds, and the storm-oppressed
Clime of the Mede, and Araby Blest,
And Asia all that by the salt-sea lies
In proud, embattled cities, motley-wise
Of Hellene and Barbarians interwrought;
And now I come to Hellas - having taught
All the world else my dances and my rite
Of mysteries, to show me in men's sight
Manifest God.

 Although all of Asia is mentioned as having been under his spell, China and Japan remained indifferent to the wine-vine, and in India there seems to have been a cultural resistance to it. There is no mention of the grape or of wine in Vedic literature and the Sanskrit draksa for grape seems to be a loan word. Though he bears similarities with certain aspects of Krishna and with the lunar Soma, Dionysus is usually associated with a more westerly tradition, where his ecstatic mysteries dramatically contrasted with the orderly and rational Apollonian rites. In the Bacchae, Euripides described how Pentheus, who is (without knowing it) the earthly brother of Dionysus, took over the throne of Thebes from the infirm Cadmus. In his self-righteously held position of power, he became shocked and angered by the 'possession' of maids and matrons (including his mother) by a new suspiciously Asiatic and probably spurious god. Pentheus represents the Apollonian love of common sense and an order which keeps women in their place - a bias which, in his case, was accompanied by a lack of imagination. Duped into disguising himself as a woman and pursuing the maids and matrons to learn of their rites, he is spotted by them but perceived in the guise of a bull in whom Dionysus is present as sacrificial victim. In their frenzy to honour the god with sacrifice, the women tear Pentheus limb from limb, his own mother blindly participating in the madness. In the play the mortals do not recover from this tragedy, but the god rises up and declares that only those who unswervingly follow him shall penetrate his deeper mysteries.

 The Dionysian rage is utterly chaste. It is destructive of order but not sexual, and the possession is one of complete abandon, like the free play of a wild animal. It is involved in the release of creative forces whose stylized and regulated representation is to be found in the work of a great artist. Thinking of this, one is powerfully reminded of Nijinsky's dancing in Debussy's L'Après-midi d'un faune. The opposition of the Dionysian to the Apollonian attempts to force men to cease worshipping the intellect instead of using it, a creative trend that seems to have inspired Greek classical drama, which takes much of its form from the Dionysian mysteries.

 Thus, the deity and his vine captured the minds of the Greeks and his purple robes fluttered through the fabric of their culture, staining it deeply, like Homer's "wine-dark sea". His womanly locks reflected a hermaphroditic state much like the blossoms on the reliably-bearing vine, and his innocent abandon to the joyous sport of the cosmos seems to precede the careful knowingness which accompanies sexual division. The sweetness of the grape remained fresh and flowing through the winding tendrils of its original mystery, but grasped at prematurely and crushed upon the ground, it becomes fermented in an airless space and produces the hysteria of pseudo-ecstasy followed by the oblivion of drunken self-abasement. In this airless condition the yeast that produces fermentation on the physical plane derives its necessary oxygen from the substance around it when it has ceased to form a part of an integral and living whole. The residue of the fruit which was once vitally and aerobically alive is thus converted by anaerobes (the yeast) into an anaerobic entity of another order.

  In occult science it is taught that each atom and molecule in the universe both creates and kills and is self-regenerating as well as self-destructive. Collectively, they represent that mysterious invisible Life which is responsible for atavistic replication and transformation. Every change at every level of cosmos involves the operation of life-forces and death-forces, as when the body of man undergoes a complete change of structure every seven years. This process is one of destruction and preservation based upon the alternation of the Fiery Lives acting as 'destroyers' or 'builders'. These Fiery Lives operate on the seventh and highest subdivision of the plane of matter, corresponding within the individual to the One Life of the universe. As builders, they sacrifice themselves as vitality capable of restraining the destructive influence of microbes and supplying them with needed nutrients so that they are compelled to build up the material body and its cells. In an analogue to what happens when the inhibitions are removed under the influence of alcohol, the Fiery Lives are destroyed when the restraint no longer exists. The microbes, unsupplied with vital energy, become destructive agents, something which in man accelerates increasingly in the latter half of his life. The analogy here can also be drawn on a larger canvas to include the example of the descent of Spirit into matter during the first half of a manvantara and its ascent at the expense of matter during the second half. The restraining influence of the Fiery Lives on the lowest subdivision of the second plane, which is that of microbes, can be illustrated in the fact that when the cells of organs do not find sufficient oxygen, they form ferments through absorbing oxygen from surrounding substances, thus 'ruining' them. One cell robs its neighbour and so on, the process steadily commencing precisely in the way that just a few enzymes produced by yeast can bring about a fundamental change in large quantities of substance.

 Being a product of such a process, alcohol mimics the pattern by acting as an agent of destruction to those centres and connections of the Higher Will which function as links articulating the subtle centres in the brain and nervous system so that they no longer harmoniously reflect a balance between replication and transformation. Cells in the brain have more lipids surrounding them than those of other parts of the body. Therefore, because of an affinity between alcohol and lipids, brain cells are profoundly affected by the presence of alcohol clustering on the surface of cells, causing the reduction of surface tension and altering thereby the distribution of solutes and the electrical potential of the cell. This and the absorption of alcohol into the lipids of the cell membrane alters the permeability of the cell. It decreases the permeability, thus interfering with its ability to be stimulated, and then increases the permeability, throwing off the cell's metabolic balance. This double effect results in narcosis and possible cell injury or even death, bringing about synapse failures in the nervous system and general paralysis of various brain centres. The brain is thus increasingly rendered incapable of transmitting the intelligence of the Higher Will to the bodily instrument.

 Alcohol is a lower form of ether which is released upon the withdrawal of the Fiery Life within the grape. It is a sort of counterfeit of this Life-Force in that it seems to stimulate and contribute to transformation (ecstasy, liberation and transportation) as well as destruction (disconnections, lesions, misalignment and disintegration), whilst being incapable of providing the vitality of the Life-Force. Through the false sense of liberation it deludes man, even whilst accelerating the weakening of the connection between his higher Triad and lower quaternary, as well as 'muffling' the function of the pineal gland. It is as if the grape (the fruit of the life-giving Deity) has been transformed into that which triumphs only after Life has moved on. In this way did the god Dionysus come and impart an ecstatic vision of Life, only to leave behind an increasingly degenerating transformation of his mysteries. True knowledge of the Fiery Life-Blood flowing through the god, the grape and its vine was lost. Its sacred, intangible flow was debased and misidentified with its delusive counterfeit so enthusiastically poured forth in ritual libation in futile hopes of entering the Divine Stream.

 As the grapevine gives joy and vitality through the sacrifice of its fruit on earth, so its celestial counterpart ever celebrates the resurrection and triumph of spiritual progress over death and external order. In the great Hindu myths it was Soma who defied Brihaspati, ruler of orthodoxy, and initiated the great War in Heaven. Soma, as the moon, carried away Brihaspati's wife and became the illegitimate father of Budha-Hermes (Wisdom). As sovereign of the vegetable world, Soma, like Dionysus, links wisdom through initiation with the physical body. The moon, in its female guise as goddess, is closely involved in this process through giving birth to sons whose life on earth culminates in the initiation of human beings through their sacrificial death and resurrection. In his masculine guise the celestial Soma is related cosmically to the mind. He is a lunar deity, born from the sense-mind in universal Purusha, and is expressed in man as his sense-mentality. The secret delight of existence is translated through him into physical consciousness through sensation.

 It is said that this delight or 'wine' of Soma is concealed in "the growths of the earth, the waters of existence, and in our physical beings". But, it is warned, this essence is so powerful that only those "baked in the fire" of suffering and experience can assimilate it and accommodate the overflooding, stormy ecstasy it brings. To grasp it prematurely is to risk the madness that overwhelmed the maids and matrons who killed Pentheus. The 'wine' is within and it must be slowly purified with the strainer (pavitra) which has been spread out wide in the seat of heaven (the realm of pure mental being) to receive it: apas pavitram vitatam divas pade. Its fibres are made from the purified metal of heart-consciousness won through tapas. Such fibres are further strengthened by the lofty purpose of the Christos within, under whose purifying influence the diffuse vital forces of the wine of Soma can be activated upwards.

 In this way man must be the husbandman to his own vine, nurturing it like a shepherd his flock, because he himself is that vine as well as being its source. In the world and in the body of man such a source does not originate below the equator but must be found in the higher centres within one's nature where the sap of the god is translated through him to the mind and senses. In drawing the sap continually up to these higher centres, one is gradually purified and Dionysus can assume his rightful seat as Fifth Ruler of the universe within. Then will the essence of soma be accommodated in its flood for humankind, and the fruit and the god-given vine will have fused in a sweet stream of its eternally fresh flow. All the cells and connecting points of the brain will function as a well-husbanded channel informing the whole of one's nature with the joyous news. Awaken, O Pilgrim! The link has been forged! Thou art now a master of the vine.

Amethyst he bore his fruit
In lapis lazuli clusters.
Trellised arms extended out,
Entwining locks with joy.
Thus the god did enter,
Thus he came upon our shore.